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Sellars Mounts an Enticing Vivaldi in Santa Fe

Santa Fe
Santa Fe Opera House
07/16/2011 -  & July 20, 29, August 4*, 9, 10, 2011
Antonio Vivaldi: Griselda
Paul Groves (Gualtiero), Meredith Arwady (Griselda), Amanda Majeski (Ottone), Isabel Leonard (Costanza), David Daniels (Roberto), Yuri Minenko (Corrado)
The Santa Fe Opera Orchestra, Grant Gershon (Conductor)
Peter Sellars (Director), Gronk (Scenic Designer), Dunya Ramicova (Costume Designer), James F. Ingalls (Lighting Designer)

(© Ken Howard/Courtesy of SFO)

Big Matisse-like cut out images wrapped round the back of the stage for a revival of Vivaldi's Griselda at the Santa Fe Opera house. For Griselda one of his late operas, the composer had moved to Venice where this opera would first be presented in 1735.

In Santa Fe lighting changed the colors of the images in a set created by Gronk, a noted Latino artist. During the course of the performance, the ebb and flow of light and movement of the wall panels encouraged the imagination to wander and dream. At times the images suggested a continuation of the Santa Fe landscape which hugs this opera house; at other times you could see the church towers and canals of Venice. Finally bathed in red light in part to honor the Red Priest Vivaldi, the images turned to black and white shapes. Into them the performers faded and came forward. As Vivaldi painted pictures with his music, Gronk paints the music in his images.

Not surprisingly director Peter Sellars has animated an opera which could be staid, its beautiful but endless recitatives and arias, the form of Vivaldi’s day, numbing instead of exciting as they do in this production. Full advantage is taken of the different emotional states of the singers in ensembles. The sensuality of the music, spacious virtuosity, extravagance and the sometimes wild, all were on riveting display.

Sellars also amuses by bringing the characters together, husband and wife, suitors and the sought, mother and daughter, and heaven forefend, a father who proposes to marry his daughter until he finds out who she is by birth. Based on the last story in Decameron, Vivaldi worked notoriously quickly with Carlos Goldoni to shape a libretto written by the poet laureate of Venice, Apostolo Zeno. Sellars takes advantage of all the climaxes and drama Vivaldi provided.

We are reminded that wives have always and still do play complicated roles not always designed to enhance self-esteem. Mrs. Dominique Strauss-Kahn seems to adjust to the complexity of her situation smoothly, but Griselda suggests how she may feel inside.

Part of the pleasure of Vivaldi's music is its exuberance, its rapid pace and sheer joy. We could perhaps have had a bit more brightness from the pit, where the dominant strings were not punched up by a harpsichord or baroque brass to produce an edgier instrumental sound. Still under the baton of Grant Gershon, the orchestra sounded splendid.

David Daniels in glorious voice as Roberto was the star of the evening. Today's go-to counter tenor gave his best performance of the season, following compelling turns as Orfeo at the Metropolitan Opera and Oberon and the messenger in Sellars' Hercules at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. In the quality of its sound, Santa Fe rivals the sine non pareil Carnegie Hall where Daniels gave a delightful concert in the spring. Apparently the Santa Fe house is set in a natural amphitheater, declared to be perfect acoustically by cognoscenti. Daniels voice has never sounded better as he displayed the music’s tonal contrasts and virtuosity to increase tension throughout, including a look forward to the glory of hopeless love in Act 2.

Meredith Arwady as Griselda sang in a beautiful, rich mezzo. Her detailed ornamentation was almost articulated speech, full of the feeling of the moment. In fact, Sellars appears to have directed his singers to use da capos and ornamentation to deliver emotion. Human relationships come forward in a form that does not easily yield to them up. The relentless rhythmic drive, dynamic contrasts and adventuresome harmonies portray Griselda’s emotional exhaustion. Borrowing from other operas was typical of the day. In this production Griselda’s performance of Stabat Mater on loan is one of the dramatic peaks.

Sellars’ light touch, even as two of the characters are cuffed and gunman protect the king up close and hovering in the background, is part of the pleasure of the evening. As Ottonone, Amanda Mejski had the most fun as captor of the Queen’s son and also the ex-Queen’s suitor. With Chaplinesque dance movements, she dipped and swizzled through arias.

Isabel Leonard, the up and coming mezzo who has won multiple awards this year, sang Costanza, to which her rapidly expanding fan club responded with well-earned brava.

Vivaldi revivals are rampant in Europe and Santa Fe, often on the cutting edge of opera in America, proposed that the US consider this often overlooked opera composer. Many pieces of Vivaldi’s distinctive voice come to life in Griselda. What provocative fun the evening provided under the brilliant direction of Peter Sellars!

The Santa Fe Opera

Susan Hall



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